A Guide to Surfing the Famous Banzai Pipeline
The Banzai Pipeline is often hailed as the greatest wave on the planet. Learn how it was discovered, why it’s so special, and what surf competitions take place on it.
On peaceful days of little or no swell in the Hawaiian summer, the Banzai Pipeline is just another drop of water that covers a piece of earth; no surfer would look at it twice, and no bystander would know that it could be a killing machine when admiring the beauty of the ocean.
In the winter, though, is when the magic happens. Waves begin breaking on a shallow reef, and the whole surfing world is on the move. Pros from all around the world flock to Oahu's North Shore, set camp in Ehukai Beach Park, and wait for their turn in the Billabong Pipe Masters or Volcom Pipe Pro.
Novices and those who just love being spectators also make their way to the Banzai beach, their hearts tingling as they're going to watch somebody surfing the Pipeline to prove that they're the master of the art of tube-riding. They'll see their idols such as John John Florence or Kelly Slater, reminisce the days of Gerry Lopez, a.k.a. Mr. Pipeline, and theorize who'll be the next one to conquer the Pipe.
But what makes the Pipeline such a spectacle, such a sensation, and such a dangerous adventure? What competitions take place there and when is the best time to make the trip (and how) if you want to experience it firsthand? Let's find out.
A Brief History of the Banzai Pipeline
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It's common knowledge that surfing, in its modern sense, was born in Hawaii. The fact that it was also advanced in Hawaii is no surprise either. Once the surf technology advanced and surfboards started to accommodate the individual needs of surfers, a lot of new types of waves became surfable, and the greatest waves on Earth still happened to be in Hawaii.
You wanted to ride outrageously huge waves? Hawaii had them. You wanted to ride inside barrels? Hawaii had them. You wanted to ride barrels on an extremely shallow reef? Hawaii had lots of reefs, too. That's why Phil Edwards took his longboard (as there were still a couple of years until the prominence of shortboards) to the Ehukai beach in December 1961 with Bruce Brown, the famous director of many surf documentaries, as his only witness.
Luckily, it was a case when the only witness was the best witness he could have had and could have hoped for. Photos from that session were circulated in the aftermath of that famous first Pipe session and drew other skilled surfers like Butch Van Artsdalen to the vicinity. When Bruce Brown's film was finally completed and released in 1963, though, there was no going back and no stopping the renowned names of the era visiting Banzai.
It didn't even take long for Gerry Lopez to claim the throne as the king of the Pipe. Thanks to the development of shortboards that were more suitable for riding big waves and tubes in the late 60s and early 70s, Gerry Lopez was able to combine skill and bravery with unprecedented style, flow, and cool. His uniqueness made the dangerous reefs and waves of the Pipe even more appealing for other pros and aspiring novices alike.
Nowadays, the Banzai Pipeline is rightfully a hub for advanced and pro surfing and hosts a couple of prestigious surf competitions each and every year to the joy of surf-lovers.
What Makes Banzai So Special
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There are lots of Oahu beaches that receive a nice swell and provide surfers with amazing waves all year round. Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are some of the other famous breaks located on the North Shore, Oahu. However, the Banzai reef break stands out as the deadliest and the most exciting of these surf spots.
Some of that is owed to the Northwest swell hits that can reach manic heights during the winter, but it's not exactly why Banzai is so special as they hit everywhere the same. The main reason why Banzai stands out is the unique formation of outer reefs that magnify swell.
The First Reef
There are three reefs in Banzai. The first is only 60 yards offshore, but once a strong swell hits that reef, it produces majestic hollow waves with a left-hander barrel known as the Pipeline and a right-hander known as the Backdoor. When the swell height is two or three feet overhead, these barrels even seem friendly and are a joy to ride.
When it reaches double overhead, though, it's a death wish, as the spiky solid lava of the reef below stares you right in the eye. However, a perfect barrel ride on the left-hander means that you're spat out away from the reef and into the Ehukai Channel, which means a peaceful paddle-back to the shore.
The Second Reef
If the swell size is well above double overhead, on the other hand, the first reef is kind of inconsequential because the outer reefs hijack the spotlight. Those huge waves break on the second reef, a.k.a., Outer Log Cabins, which is nearly 80 yards outside the first one and create steep walls and lips that are boiling with energy.
When these waves close on the shore, that's surely a mouth-watering moment for confident and adventurous surfers. Yet, the results might be pale beside the break on the first reef, which leads to the Pipeline and the Backdoor.
The Third Reef
There are times when the swell makes its way toward the shore in gargantuan proportions, too. However, they're warmly welcomed by the third reef, which is 300 yards offshore, and the waves breaking on the third reef start rolling magnificently as a huge mass of white foam with the aid of the easterly trade winds.
All in all, it's dangerous yet jaw-dropping, crazy yet admirable, and diabolical yet holy.
Surf Competitions That Take Place at the Banzai Pipeline
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You might think that such a famous wave would indeed be the focal point of many surf competitions, but that's not the case. Firstly, there probably aren't enough surfers who can compete, and even if there were, it's quite difficult to get a permit from the City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks as they tend to hold permits to a limited number.
That being said, the three competitions that take place on the Pipeline are among the best competitive spectacles you can see anywhere on earth, whether you're into surfing or not.
The most important one of these events is, without a doubt, the Pipeline Masters. It started in 1970, shortly after the wave rose to prominence as the best in the world, and now it's the conclusive event of two prestigious tours: the Hawaiian Triple Crown and the World Surf League Tour.
Unsurprisingly, the masters of the Pipeline are generally the best of their generations: Kelly Slater (7-times winner), Andy Irons (4), Tom Carroll (3), and Gerry Lopez (2). However, Jamie O'Brien and John John Florence dominate the competitions in recent times. Their domination makes sense, too, as both live quite close to the Pipe, and both are actually local surfers.
In addition to the Masters, should you plan your trip accordingly, you can also catch the Volcom Pipe Pro that has been taking place for only a year more than a decade now and hosting exciting pros like Kelly Slater and John John Florence. Also, the revolutionary team competition of the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout that takes place on the right-hander often provides a sight to see.
A Brief Surf Trip Breakdown
Not all surf trips require you to pick up your surfboard and paddle towards a wave lineup. For the Pipe, it's even more understandable to not want to get into the ocean but only admire the waves and the best barrel-riders in the world. That makes our advice for your surf trip a two-layered one.
Even if you're planning to see the place without hitting the waves, it's still best to pick a time when a major surf competition is being held. The most spectacular swell hits the North Shore during winter, so these competitions take place in January and February.
However, be warned that it's also the time when the place is buzzing. When the surf is up, you won't even be able to find a place to park your car near the waves. So, if you're booking a trip and a vacation rental, you better not postpone it by much. When you're there, make sure you're the earliest to wake so that you don't miss any of the fun by looking for a place to dump your car.
In addition, the locals have resisted urban development in the area, so there aren't many hotels you can stay in. However, there are quite a number of resorts, condos, and vacation rental options. Still, if you don't want to stay too far away from the action, we'd recommend you pack a tent that's strong enough to withstand tropical winds.
What the North Shore lacks in terms of abode, though, is compensated by other things. The chance to watch the greatest surfers of their generation aside, you'll also have ample opportunities to socialize with chill people who can get quite passionate about surfing. You'll sample the local cuisine, enjoy some of the cleanest water on the planet, and spend a few laid-back weeks away from your daily concerns.
The North Shore is not one of the best beginner-friendly destinations—at least, not when the swell and wind are at their most majestic during the winter. However, if you're a beginner or an intermediate surfer and still want to brag to your friends and family back home by proudly telling them that you've surfed the Pipeline, you can go in the summer. At least, you can have a little dabble in the ocean and get back out.
Still, it's not something we can wholeheartedly recommend since the shallow water and sharp reefs beneath are no joke unless you're a confident and competent surfer. If you're an advanced surfer, on the other hand, go there in the winter and don't forget to pack your shortboard.
Besides the already well-known qualities of the Pipeline, it also has quite a short paddling distance, so you won't be suffering from any shoulder burns and have enough energy to enjoy the most famous wave on the planet.
However, the sharp reefs aren't the only downside of the Banzai Pipeline. On a good surfing day, the wave lineups will be crowded as hell, and mind that the surfers in those lineups aren't some surf enthusiasts who can only ride a Wavestorm. On the contrary, some of them are the greatest tube-riders on earth.
Moreover, as we said above, some of the local surfers happen to be big names like Jamie O'Brien, John John Florence, and Mark Cunningham. Therefore, unless you're humble and respectful, the crowd might become more dangerous for you than the reefs below. So, proceed with caution.
One cannot help but wonder what would've happened if the filmmaker Bruce Brown didn't accompany Phil Edwards when he first surfed the Pipe. What would've happened if he didn't have his camera with him that day? The answer probably is that somebody else would've eventually discovered it, but would the aftermath be the same? Would we still call Gerry Lopez Mr. Pipeline?
Well, luckily for us, history cannot be changed, and the Pipeline is what it is: an extremely adventurous joy to watch and ride, the final event of the WSL Tour, and the main reason we go on YouTube.